Hollywood Auction Ends Myth of Zaftig Marilyn

Bloomberg View , June 22, 2011

We should never again hear anyone declare that Marilyn Monroe was a size 12, a size 14 or any other stand-in for full-figured, zaftig or plump. Fifteen thousand people have now seen dramatic evidence to the contrary. Monroe was, in fact, teeny-tiny.

The 15,000 were the visitors who turned out over eight days to oooh and aaah at the preview exhibit for the June 18 auction of Debbie Reynolds’s extraordinary collection of Hollywood costumes, props and other memorabilia.

The two comments heard most often in the crowded galleries were (to paraphrase), “Wow, they were thin” and “It’s such a shame. These things should be in a museum.”

The two remarks are in fact related. The former demonstrates the truth of the latter.

When the auctioneer’s final hammer came down at 1:20 in the morning, the world lost a treasure. The collection Reynolds assembled over 40 years will now be fragmented and dispersed. “It was a melancholy day for Los Angeles and the rest of the country,” wrote Christian Esquevin on his Silver Screen Modiste blog, expressing a common sentiment. “We will never see the likes of this collection again.”

The movie business has never particularly valued its historical artifacts. Hollywood, notes director John Landis, treats costumes and props as “industrial waste,” to be recycled or discarded but not displayed or preserved. It also keeps an embarrassed distance from the enthusiasts who treasure such relics. Unlike, say, science fiction, the mainstream movie industry doesn’t embrace cult followings. And Los Angeles is notorious for its paucity of institution-building philanthropists.

Despite decades of effort, Reynolds never managed to find funding for the Hollywood motion-picture history museum she envisioned. The collapse of her most recent attempt, a project in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, near Dolly Parton’s Dollywood, precipitated the auction. Reynolds has debts to pay.

From a strictly financial point of view, the collection was undoubtedly worth more in pieces than together -- $22.8 million for the 587 lots sold over the weekend, with a second auction planned for December. My cache of 1930s Fortune magazines would similarly sell for more if I sliced them up and sold the ads and covers separately on EBay.

But as a historical record, a costume collection, like a vintage magazine, is more than the sum of its parts. You learn more from considering the group as a whole.

Take the question of Marilyn Monroe’s size.

The auction’s top-ticket item was Monroe’s famous white halter dress from “The Seven Year Itch,” the one that billowed up as the subway passed. It sold for almost $5.66 million (including the buyer’s premium) to an unknown phone bidder. Sharing a rotating mirrored platform with Hedy Lamarr’s peacock gown from “Samson and Delilah” and Kim Novak’s rhinestone-fringed show dress from “Jeanne Eagels,” Monroe’s costume was displayed on a mannequin that had been carved down from a standard size 2 to accommodate the tiny waist. Even then, the zipper could not entirely close.

But that’s just one dress. Perhaps the star was having a skinny day. To check, you could look across the room and see that Monroe’s red-sequined show dress from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was at least as petite, as were the saloon costume from “River of No Return” and the tropical “Heat Wave” outfit from “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

In fact, the average waist measurement of the four Monroe dresses was a mere 22 inches, according to Lisa Urban, the Hollywood consultant who dressed the mannequins and took measurements for me. Even Monroe’s bust was a modest 34 inches.

That’s not an anecdote. That’s data.

The other actresses’ costumes provided further context. “It’s like half a person,” marveled a visitor at the sight of Claudette Colbert’s gold-lame “Cleopatra” gown (waist 18 inches). “That waist is the size of my thigh,” said a tall, slim man, looking at Carole Lombard’s dress from “No Man of Her Own” (a slight exaggeration -- it was 21 inches). Approaching Katharine Hepburn’s “Mary of Scotland” costumes, a plump woman declared with a mixture of envy and disgust, “Another skinny one.”

The pattern she noticed was real. At my request, Urban took waist measurements on garments worn by 16 different stars, from Mary Pickford in 1929 (20 inches) to Barbra Streisand in 1969 (24 inches). The thickest waist she found was Mae West’s 26 inches in “Myra Breckinridge,” when the actress was 77 years old.

Waist sizes are easy for the general public to notice and understand. Trained eyes find other patterns that can only emerge when costumes are examined together, rather than treated as individual icons based on who wore them.

Historians can compare the construction and cut of the “Mutiny on the Bounty” uniforms from 1935 with those from the 1962 remake, for instance, or analyze how Elizabethan court dress was imagined for “Mary of Scotland” or “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” in the late 1930s, versus “Young Bess” or “The Virgin Queen” from the mid-1950s.

To understand the past, you need a large sample. Only then can you separate idiosyncratic variation from broad trends. With more costume examples, notes Kevin Jones, curator of the museum collections at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, you can “get a complete picture of the overall look and feel of a particular production and the specific style of an individual designer.”

One of the strengths of Reynolds’s collection was that she assembled multiple costumes from the same movie -- 12 lots from “Desiree,” for instance, not just Marlon Brando’s coronation robes as Napoleon.

She saved not only Audrey Hepburn’s iconic Ascot costume from “My Fair Lady” but also Rex Harrison’s accompanying Henry Higgins suit; not just Gene Kelly’s sailor uniform from “Anchors Aweigh” but also Frank Sinatra’s; not just Norma Shearer’s embroidered Juliet gown but two of Leslie Howard’s Romeo doublets and pants plus the costumes for Lady Capulet, Paris, two female extras and a Montague pole bearer. The auction broke apart such groupings, likely forever.

It also complicated preparations for a landmark costume exhibition. In October 2012, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London will mount the largest motion-picture costume display ever, with costumes representing a century of movies, borrowed from at least 13 institutions and private collections.

The show is being curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis (John’s wife), a costume historian and Oscar-nominated costume designer who directs the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Its goal, she explained, is to show costume design “as a vibrant modern art form” and “a key component of cinema storytelling.”

Reynolds had enthusiastically pledged whatever costumes from her collection were needed. “She gave me all of her inventory books and said, ‘Look through them. I’ve been trying to do this for years. Please pick whatever you want, and I would love to share these with the world,’” says Landis.

Financial reverses spoiled those generous plans, leaving Landis to hope that anonymous bidders will step forward to volunteer their new prizes for the exhibit. She attended the auction in hopes of identifying these buyers, and the back page of the auction catalog carried the V&A’s plea to borrow eight iconic costumes.

Yet even as scholars and fans mourn the collection’s breakup, dreaming of the museum that might have been, they admit the importance of private collectors. These enthusiasts may not all preserve artifacts in museum-quality condition, keeping costumes unaltered and mostly in the dark. But without the sometimes-eccentric people who buy at auctions out of their own passion to own a piece of movie history, no one would have saved these objects in the first place.

“Thank God for them,” says Deborah Landis. “Thank God for Debbie. We would have nothing. It would have been rags. That was the old way. We used everything until it fell off the hanger. That was the tradition in Hollywood.”